When one leaves Interstate 71 at the Fifth Avenue exit in Columbus and heads west, it is hard to miss an immense open space at the southwest corner of Cleveland and Fifth avenues. The traveler passing through and even many residents of Columbus may wonder what once took up all of that space at that corner.

When one leaves Interstate 71 at the Fifth Avenue exit in Columbus and heads west, it is hard to miss an immense open space at the southwest corner of Cleveland and Fifth avenues. The traveler passing through and even many residents of Columbus may wonder what once took up all of that space at that corner.

And well they might. Since 1986, not much of anything has been on that site. But for almost half a century before that, the huge parcel of land was home to one of the busiest manufacturing plants in Ohio. At its peak, thousands of people worked at the plant, which operated three shifts to make a variety of products, mostly with tempered steel.

This was the factory of the Timken Company.

It was not the only Timken factory. And it was not even the oldest. But in the years between 1920 and 1986, it was certainly one of the busiest and arguably one of the best.

The story of Timken in Columbus is a tale of remarkably successful American enterprise looking for a place to build its first out-of-town plant and finding Columbus to be the location of choice.

How all of that happened makes for an interesting story in its own right.

Henry Timken arrived in America in 1839 from Tarmstedt, Germany, at the age of 7 and settled with his family on a farm in rural Missouri. Like many Germans of that era, the Timkens had been lured to America by the promise of new opportunities in a new land. Henry Timken grew up attending a country school and working on the family homestead.

At the age of 16, he set out to make his own way in the nearest big city with a substantial German population, which in this case happened to be St. Louis.

Arriving in St. Louis, Timken apprenticed himself to a master wagon maker named Caspar Shurmeier. Over the next several years he learned to work wood and leather and metal together to form both practical wagons and elegant carriages.

Henry Timken's career, like that of many people of his era, had its up and downs. Leaving his work behind, he went off to Colorado in 1860 with thousands of others to look for gold. Like most of them, he did not find much and returned home just in time to join the Missouri militia defending the state against Confederate incursions during the American Civil War.

By the end of the war, Henry Timken had built a small successful carriage factory in St. Louis. In 1877, he built an even larger factory. Married with five children two boys and three girls Henry Timken had become a quite prominent local businessman.

He was soon to achieve national success as well.

He did this by doing what many entrepreneurs were doing in the late nineteenth century. Rather than continuing to build whole carriages in an increasingly competitive trade where huge companies like Studebaker could turn out a carriage every seven minutes, Timken began to develop patentable innovations for the carriage and wagon trade that would be used by most manufacturers.

The first of these, the Timken Cross-Spring, was quite successful and was followed by a patented Side Spring and other improvements as well. As Henry Timken moved toward retirement, his sons Henry and H. H. Timken entered the business and would soon develop their own patented innovations centered on steel bearings used to reduce friction in vehicles of all sorts automotive as well as horse-drawn. Most notable among them was the tapered steel roller bearing.

By 1902, the St. Louis factory had simply become too small and the Timken Company moved to Canton, Ohio. Canton was seen as an ideal location because it was equally distant from the buggy factories of Columbus, the auto factories of Detroit and the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Responding to Henry Ford's Model T in 1908, the company split off its axle factory and sent it to Detroit. The Canton factory was the home of the newly renamed Timken Roller Bearing Company. By the time Henry Timken Senior died in 1909, the company employed 1,200 people and was making 850,000 bearings per year.

The company enjoyed remarkable growth during the years leading up to World War I. One of the few bearing companies to make its own steel, Timken began providing equipment to railroad car manufacturers as well as other industrial users.

In 1920, the company decided to build its first bearing plant outside Canton. It chose Columbus. It really was not hard to see why. Columbus had been the home of more than 22 buggy companies in the 1800s. It was also the home of major factories producing, among other things, mining equipment, boots and shoes and steel and glass. It was the home to all of these industries because it was squarely in the middle of the state and served by a large number of major railroad lines.

Chief among them was the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was near the Grogan repair yards of the Pennsylvania and its nearby residential neighborhoods of Milo and Grogan on the near northeast side of the city that Timken decided to build a major manufacturing facility. The company became a major employer in the city of Columbus and its leadership was involved in variety of civic and charitable activities over the years as well. The corporate success of the company led Timken to build a second factory in the city for the production railroad bearings in 1958.

The years after 1920 were good ones for Timken, the Milo-Grogan neighborhood and Columbus in general.

But change comes to all industries, and American industry in general was transformed in the years after World War II. Intense foreign competition combined with extraordinary changes caused by automation and changing workforce development needs caused some companies to go under and others to reinvent themselves.

Timken successfully restructured its business several times in the past forty years. Eventually some of those decisions led to the closure of its Columbus bearing plant in 1986 and its remaining plant in 2001. At the end of 2009, the Timken Company saw sales of $3.14-billion and employed 16,667 people. Its chairman, Ward J. (Tim) Timken Jr. is the great-grandson of the founder of the company.

Today Milo-Grogan is a neighborhood revitalizing itself. The great open space at Fifth and Cleveland will become part of that transition. The only question is when and how.